- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

NEW DELHI — The growth of India’s billion-plus population is slowing and southern parts of the country are approaching fertility rates close to those of European nations, according to a top official of the United Nations.

However, this contrasts sharply with vast areas in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and the eastern state of Bihar, where population growth is soaring and driving up the national average.

Francois Farah, who represents the U.N. Population Fund in India, told Agence France-Presse recently that fewer babies are being born to the average Indian family as a result of heightened awareness.

“India has done a very good job in sensitization. Everybody now knows it’s better to have fewer children,” he said.

The new sensitivity was clear from the last census in 2001, he said, which showed the population growth rate had come down to 2.9 percent from 3.2 percent a decade earlier.

Mr. Farah said the slowing of India’s population growth began about 15 years ago, but only became pronounced in the past decade.

Now the fertility rate in Kerala, which has a high literacy level, is around 1.8 percent. “This is quite near Germany’s figure, which is 1.6. You need a fertility rate slightly above two to replace existing population,” Mr. Farah said.

Mr. Farah added that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states were trailing because state agencies failed to adequately distribute contraceptives and provide medical facilities for family planning.

“There is an unmet need for family planning. People would like to space their children. The name of the game is to make the services available,” he added.

Mr. Farah said India could achieve population stabilization before the government’s estimate that this will happen between 2035 to 2045, if authorities could provide equal distribution of family planning services to all regions.

He said family planning services in India need to improve by 15 percent to 20 percent, but that the needed improvement in planning services could be as high as 30 percent in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states.

Despite the declining growth rate, India’s problems are still staggering because it has nearly 17 percent of the world’s population living on only 2.4 percent of the world’s land.

Every sixth human being is in India, and nearly 15 million children are born here each year.

Mr. Farah said a key strategy for the authorities would be to keep in mind during family planning campaigns that nearly a quarter of India’s population is 5 to 19 years old.

“This is where the challenges lie for India. This group will determine the future age of marriage, family patterns and other life skills,” he said, adding that they would also be the target group for spreading awareness on sexually transmitted diseases.

Mr. Farah said India would need to make an effort as concerted as its family planning campaign to check the spread of human imunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. “We definitely need to sensitize and motivate people.”

India says 4 million of its people are living with HIV — more than any country except South Africa. A U.S. study last year predicted there would be 20 million to 25 million Indians infected with HIV by 2010.

“It takes a long time to change a trend in population growth,” said Mr. Farah. “I think [Indias] population growth will now continue to decline. It is irreversible.”

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